Harry Potter and the Horror of the Ellipsis

J.K. Rowling is a master storyteller, weaving intricate plots with believable characters and astonishingly detailed and fascinating setting. And her writing can be brilliant; take, for example, this snippet from The Sorcerer’s Stone:

“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”

Dumbledore now became very interested in a bird out on the windowsill, which gave Harry time to dry his eyes on the sheet.

The brilliance, of course, comes from contrast. Dumbledore’s explanation is indulgent; the following sentence, however, is simple and direct. The implied meaning is far more powerful than simply stating, “Dumbledore looked out the window and pretended to be interested in a bird so that Harry would not be embarrassed about crying.”

This kind of tight, meaningful writing is what brings me back again and again. It’s what makes me a fan of a writer.

But then the problems begin.

At the end of The Goblet of Fire, the dialogue of Voldemort and the Death Eaters becomes erratic. For example, Lucius Malfoy says:

“Master, we crave to know…we beg you to tell us…how you have achieved this…this miracle…how you managed to return to us…”

A little later, Voldemort is explaining:

“I remember only forcing myself, sleeplessly, endlessly, second by second, to exist….I settled in a faraway place, in a forest, and I waited….Surely, one of my faithful Death Eaters would try and find me…one of them would come and perform the magic I could not, to restore me to a body…but I waited in vain….”

Voldemort’s speech pattern continues in this vein, enough that one might suppose the ellipsis is used as a technique to present Voldemort’s manner of speaking, but then the pattern slips into the prose.

At these words Harry remembered, as though from a former life, the dueling club at Hogwarts he had attended briefly two years ago….All he had learned there was the Disarming Spell, “Expelliarmus“…and what use would it be to deprive Voldemort of his wand, even if he could, when he was surrounded by Death Eaters, outnumbered by at least thirty to one? He had never learned anything that could possibly fit him for this. He knew he was facing the thing against which Moody had always warned…the unblockable Avada Kedavra curse–and Voldemort was right–his mother was not here to die for him this time….He was quite unprotected….

“We bow to each other, Harry,” said Voldemort, bending a little, but keeping his snakelike face upturned to Harry. “Come, the niceties must be observed….Dumbledore would like you to show manners….Bow to death, Harry….”

Note the inconsistent use of ellipses and dashes. The prose and dialogue continue in this same way during any scene in which tension is supposed to be building:

He concentrated every last particle of his mind upon forcing the bead back towards Voldemort, his ears full of phoenix song, his eyes furious, fixed…and slowly, very slowly, the beads quivered to a halt, and then, just as slowly, they began to move the other way…and it was Voldemort’s wand that was vibrating extra-hard now…Voldemort who looked astonished, and almost fearful….

One of the beads of light was quivering, inches from the tip of Voldemort’s wand. Harry didn’t understand why he was doing it, didn’t know what it might achieve…but he now concentrated as he had never done in his life on forcing that bead of light right back into Voldemort’s wand…and slowly…very slowly…it moved along the golden thread…it trembled for a moment…and then it connected….

At once, Voldemort’s wand began to emit echoing screams of pain…then–Voldemort’s red eyes widened with shock–a dense, smoky hand flew out of the tip of it and vanished…the ghost of the hand he had made Wormtail…more shouts of pain…and then something much larger began to blossom from Voldemort’s wand tip, a great, grayish something, that looked as though it were made of the solidest, densest smoke….It was a head…now a chest and arms…the torso of Cedric Diggory.

I don’t know about you, but I was about ready to tear my eyes out.

This is a very exciting scene. Harry is dueling with Voldemort, the Dark wizard who killed his parents. He really has no hope of winning, but something extraordinary is happening between the two wizards’ wands. It is supposed to be tense and scary. Obviously the ellipses, dashes, and run-on sentences are meant to build that tension.

But they have the reverse effect. They build boredom and annoyance.

What happened to short, impactful prose? What happened to implied meaning? What happened to proper sentence structure?

As a counter example, consider this section, which occurred before the duel, when Harry and Cedric first arrived in the graveyard.

And then, without warning, Harry’s scar exploded with pain. It was agony such as he had never felt in all his life; his wand slipped from his fingers as he put his hands over his face; his knees buckled; he was on the ground and he could see nothing at all; his head was about to split open.

From far away, above his head, he heard a high, cold voice say, “Kill the spare.”

A swishing noise and a second voice, which screeched the words to the night: “Avada Kedavra!

A blast of green light blazed through Harry’s eyelids, and he heard something heavy fall to the ground beside him; the pain in his scar reached such a pitch that he retched, and then it diminished; terrified of what he was about to see, he opened his stinging eyes.

Cedric was lying spread-eagled on the ground beside him. He was dead.

You’ll note that in this particular example, Rowling uses semicolons instead of ellipses–more inconsistency. However, I would direct your attention to those last two sentences.

Imagine, if you will, how horrible they would have been if they had read:

Cedric was lying spread-eagled on the ground beside him….he was dead….

But they did not, and this proves that Rowling understands the power of snappy, meaningful sentences. She knows that the period is a very effective piece of punctuation.

So why, why does her writing degenerate into something akin to stream of consciousness, and continue that way into book five?

I am not implying that ellipses and dashes (and even, perhaps, Rowling’s inventive use of semicolons) have no place in writing. If a means is effective, I see no problem in using it.

But gimmicks are only effective in small quantities. The pace of writing should be varied, as should the words used. Redundancy only amplifies prose if it is scarce.

When avoiding overuse of gimmicks, the best idea is to fall back on standards. “He said” instead of “He commented”. Periods instead of ellipses or exclamation points. The gimmick should surprise and delight the reader–as the first example I cited in this post delighted me.

What is most disconcerting about this is that J.K. Rowling knows how to write effectively. She did it through the first three books. But something happened in Goblet of Fire…and now I’ve lost the high, I no longer need to hurry back and read more, I’m not lamenting the fact that I haven’t taken the book somewhere when I have an idle moment.

The writing, my dears, is just as important as the story.

(The downturn in Rowling’s writing was noticed by others, but I hadn’t read their articles before I wrote mine.)